Out of office

Here are some tips on how to lead effectively when you work from home.

“You’d be amazed at some of the places I’ve opened my laptop,” says Shabir Ladha, a partner at KBH Chartered Accountants in Edmonton. “I’ve even worked in the stands during my daughter’s cheerleading competitions.”

When Ladha started with the firm 16 years ago, no one telecommuted. Now, of the nine partners at KBH, all but one work remotely several days a week. “The more senior you get, the more you do it because of the flexibility the job requires, the demands it puts on you and the nature of the work in general,” he says. “Thanks to technology, I can turn any space into an office and work anywhere I need to.”

The days of spending nine to five in a traditional office environment are coming to an end, says Navroz Surani, the Toronto-based director of human resources for Pakistan’s Aga Khan University. What’s more, it’s becoming more commonplace for managers to make hiring decisions without even glancing at their prospective hires’ locations. “With globalization and new technology, businesses increasingly have more virtual teams and employees working in different places.” The problem, Surani says, is that many managers use the same approach they used when they could just poke their head into employees’ offices and engage with them face-to- face. “Most companies haven’t prepared their employees for how to interact virtually. You need to make a conscious effort to keep everyone engaged because it doesn’t happen automatically anymore,” he says. “Remote members need to feel very much a part of the organization.”

When Susan Hodkinson was hired as COO of Crowe Soberman LLP in Toronto nine years ago, there was resistance to telecommuting. “If someone was working out of the office, there was a sense that he or she wasn’t really working,” she says. “It required a shift in management and a change in attitude, but now people work from home all the time and out-of-office messages that say ‘I’m WFH [working from home]’ are just part of the lingo.” Still, Hodkinson says making the transition was a challenge for her firm. “I’m actually working from home right now because I gain two whole hours when I don’t have to commute. But to do that, I needed to build a foundation so people could get to know me and what I do.”


Kevin Kelloway, Canada Research Chair in occupational health psychology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, has been studying virtual leadership for more than a decade. The key thing he’s learned about doing business in a digital environment is that it helps if you can meet people face-to-face, even if it’s only once. “Virtual relationships work better if you have a preexisting relationship,” he says. “You don’t get the same ambiguities in communication when you know the other person.” He recommends organizing a team get-together or kick-off meeting to help people put names to faces. Although he recognizes that it isn’t always easy, or even possible. “In my own work, I frequently collaborate with people in Australia or the UK and it’s all done by email or Skype.”

The difficulty with virtual interactions for management, Kelloway says, is that they tend to be more formal than personal meetings, making it harder to establish team camaraderie and a dynamic corporate culture. Videoconferences are a good example, he says. “People file into separate rooms, the cameras come on and everybody sits up straight and works through the agenda — but most meetings aren’t actually like that. People wander in and they joke and talk about what’s on TV and eventually get down to business.” The key to fighting formality in virtual working relationships, he says, is to plan casual communications. “You have to consciously reach out to employees and make connections that aren’t always task oriented. We tell managers to make a point of calling every now and then just to say, ‘Hi, how are you?’” Kelloway says it’s especially important to do this because it’s all too easy for people to drift off and become disengaged. “As a leader, you need a plan for how you’re going to stay in touch to keep people involved. Teams don’t just happen — you have to work at them and when we started working virtually, we forgot all that.”

Surani agrees, adding that in virtual work situations, managers should adopt a more flexible leadership approach. “It just means you need to be a little more flexible, more personal and add humour and fun to make it easier and comfortable for people to interact,” he says. Sometimes it’s as simple as recognizing employees individually to help them feel less isolated. When Surani wakes up at 3 a.m. to join a meeting that’s being held in East Africa, the president of the university always acknowledges him and thanks him directly. “It’s just a simple thank-you, but it keeps me motivated for months.” When Surani is the one leading a conference call, he makes sure to be first on the line and greets everyone individually. “When everyone else joins and sees that the supervisor is already there, it sends the message that the meeting is important and that I care,” he says. “It’s about using both discipline and empathy as a manager to establish trust and mutual respect.” Virtual team members should be considered as part and parcel of the organization and they should never fall into the trap of being “out of sight, out of mind.”


Another way to motivate faraway employees is through award and recognition programs — something that’s actually easier to do in a virtual setting, Kelloway says. In some of his earliest work, he studied how managers lead through email and discovered that strong leadership works the same way in a virtual workplace as it does in a conventional office setting. “You can still be inspiring, motivating and make a point of recognizing accomplishments virtually. Often it’s even more powerful because with email you have the ability to copy everybody in and make it a more public form of recognition,” he says. “All the same stuff we teach in leadership training about recognizing people and their accomplishments is maybe even more important in a virtual setting when people are spread out and not in regular contact with each other.”

At Crowe Soberman, Hodkinson spent two years helping identify core competencies for the firm’s staff and establishing a new awards program to recognize employees through a nomination process. “It’s useful because it helps people get to know — and think about — others in areas of the firm they may not come in contact with,” she says. “You have to work a little harder at the cultural thing when everybody’s not in the office all the time, but it’s not realistic to say, ‘We aren’t going to do business that way.’ You have to embrace it.”


Ladha, who is in charge of IT and oversees marketing at KBH, says it’s important to recognize there will be some added costs to setting up virtual offices initially, but the long-term benefits include a happier, more productive staff and a stronger firm culture. “For telecommuting to be effective, a firm needs to have made the shift to be as paperless as possible and also just needs someone to say, ‘I want to work like this.’ Then it’s just a matter of hiring IT to make it possible.”

At KBH, all nonadministrative employees have laptops and can work off-site whenever they need to, Ladha says. The firm spent four years establishing and upgrading a secure terminal and network connections to deal with privacy-related information and to handle the flow of sensitive documents. It also set up employees with the necessary software on their laptops, as well as the ability to connect remotely to their office machines.

“All of these changes have been driven by demand,” Ladha says. “We all have increased pressures and demands on our time and we live in a society where most spouses work, but we all still want to participate fully in family life. It’s a detriment to a firm not to give managers and employees the ability to telecommute — you just need to recognize that you don’t need to be in a physical office to connect with people, as long as you provide an atmosphere where that communication is easy.”